Getting Riel With Veterans In Winnipeg
On May 28th I found myself in Winnipeg for the city’s inaugural Veteran Appreciation Day. An initiative designed to increase community recognition of local veterans, the jovial spring setting was a far cry from the sombre and reflective atmosphere of Remembrance Day. Indeed, it was much more a celebration of what Canadian veterans, both alive and dead, had achieved rather than what had been lost. Much as the Queen of England has two birthdays, to accommodate the weather, it is only fair that Canadian servicemen should have a summer event to further commemorate their service and sacrifice.
A few weeks earlier, I had attended one of the Royal Ontario Museum’s history debates, aptly named ‘History Wars`. The debate series saw two experts go head to head over key issues in Canada`s historic narrative. On May 5th the debate centred on the hanging of Louis Riel. As NDP MP Pat Martin`s fiery proposition for rehabilitation swept away his opponents’ floundering argument for condemnation, by the end of the debate the verdict was that it should have been a “hung jury, not a hung hero.”
Intrigued by Riel and his story, and with the Historica-Dominion Institute having launched a project in the same month dedicated to raising awareness for Sir John A MacDonald – the man who ordered Riel`s controversial death – I decided to track down Riel’s grave while in Winnipeg.
Although Riel’s story is not directly related to the Memory Project, it does nevertheless hold an important position in Canada’s historic narrative. Coinciding with Confederation, Louis Riel and his revolt are part of a defining moment in Canada’s history; its birth. As we commemorated Canada’s contribution to the First, Second and Korean Wars that weekend, it was poignantly brought home to me how different this country’s role in these conflicts would have been if unilateral confederation had faltered. When it comes to Riel, however, controversy seems to be the only certainty. To some the same personal principles of freedom, equality and justice, that drove Riel to controversially take up arms against his government, are manifested in Canadians who served their country from the First World War through to the present day. To others, his execution was a little evil done for a greater good.